First Aid Kit
I recently read the brilliant article by Maura Johnston on the Village Voice (suggested on twitter by Alex Ross) “How Not To Write About Female Musicians: A Handy Guide”.
Handy to avoid the middle-age man temptation to write about the two Swedish sisters, Klara and Johanna Söderberg, and concentrate on their promising musical project: First Aid Kit.
Scandinavian music after all is at its most popular peak since ABBA, although releasing much better records.
I was to photograph a first First Aid Kit concert at London Union Chapel more than two years ago with the editor of The Line Of Best Fit which is 5 years old today. Last minute he had to pull out obliterating my photopass with his decision, that also mean my set ended up being digital instead of film. (Not being resentful after all this time, I just checked my gmail to remember why I didn’t go in the end)!
Those days First Aid Kit were two teenage girls. Klara had to wait for school holidays to tour, Johanna had probably just finished it.
There was a lot of rumours in the blogosphere about this emerging acoustic folk duo who covered Fleet Foxes’ Tiger Mountain Peasant Song. Nordic music wasn’t yet hyped and folk revival was started among the others by Fleet Foxes themselves.
First Aid Kit debut, The Big Black & The Blue, was just out. A nice album that resembles a good fruit in need of some ripening.
Everything was in an unstable equilibrium. This could have been just another band redesigning the hippie fashion style of the sixties. The music, coupled with the bucolic image the girls transmitted, was going that direction.
During the American tour, they were noticed by Jack White, who never misses getting in touch with a duo made by young, pretty girls. As he did for his collaboration with the Smoke Fairies in 2009, he produced a 7” to First Aid Kit who recorded two covers, Universal Soldier and It Hurts Me Too for his Third Man Records. Experience experience.
Two years on from that debut; one year from White Nashville studio; school finished, the Lion’s Roar has just been published. As it happens these times, days before its release it was streamed on several websites and had a very positive response.
The songs sound brilliant and captivating as nothing else I have listened to this year. There’s not better way to show the potential of a band than releasing a convincing sophomore album. Lion’s Roar is indeed convincing.
First Aid Kit haven’t really moved from their style. The difference is that the music had time to ripen and the album has the songs. Not a couple of good singles as the previous, but ten solid tunes. Out of these the first three and the last two stand out.
Teenage innocence allows and justifies some overconfidence and, as often happens, who dares win.
They dedicate a song, Emmylou, to Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris. The song has been praised by Rosanna Cash. There are collaborations including a precious cameo of Bright Eyes’ Conan Oberst on the closing track, King of the World, and what a track that is!
This First Aid Kit London gig was scheduled to happen at the small King’s College London Students’ Union. Tickets demand beyond expectations forced the organizers to move it to the larger and prestigious Scala.
(On a personal selfish note, delightful place of choice for my commuting from Cambridge to Kings Cross, thanks girls!)
Scala sold out too, which is a photographer’s problem. Happiness and relief caught me when I saw the barriers delimiting a photographers’ pit rarely present there.
While waiting for the girls from the comfort of the pit, I glance at the setlist. I noticed, Waltz for Richard a favourite from first album isn’t present. I also notice there is a song called Blue. Doubt… what ‘Blue’ is that? Smartphone + Google = problem sorted.
They have one song titled Blue in Lion’s Roar. I’m very bad at remembering titles but Blue is an unforgettable album (and song) by Joni Mitchell. Not a cover, the source of my worry, I read it as homage to Joni Mitchell, one artist they must have listened to a lot. Even more convinced ambition can be a good thing.
Klara enters first and stands on the right with her guitars; Johanna is on the left on red keyboards. They’re quite far one from the other. There’s a drummer and nothing else (if I understood well, it’s their brother).
Since the first notes it’s clear the concert will be about two wonderful voices.
I can’t say which of the two is my favourite, the way they modulate the singing make each songs special. The music is fairly simple. Klara’s guitar and Johanna’s keys aren’t more than simple melodies and plain harmonies.
The singing makes the songs. Both when alternate or when harmonize.
There are some highs in the show. The first is when the duo leaves their positions to stand close and delight the audience with a Ghost Town sang off microphones with the help of the audience. It can be seen as a show off, I loved it because it was the only moment the two girls played next to each other and had an incredible feedback by the singing crowd.
Johanna leaves his keys to play New Year’s Eve with an autoharp, instrument unknown to modern music since PJ Harvey shook England.
There are some light moments during the show, songs that have been written with radio coverage and charts in mind but there is nothing wrong with it because all First Aid Kit tunes sound genuine.
Indie musicians know that the other thing their audience love, beyond the quality of the music, is the sincerity they put in songs.
The duo find the time to introduce the brother and even tell their father who’s at the sound desk. I think at the tour bus as a nice family campervan on the road throughout the world.
Not on the original setlist, Kings of the World can’t be forgotten and it closes the two songs encore on a high.
I stop at the merchandise desk to buy a copy of the album. I always try to buy from the hands of the band and I am on the train with a nicely dedicated copy. Win.
What was beautiful at this show musicwise, it wasn’t photography-wise.
Nothing intentional. Simply stating a sad reality.
The first three songs where the shyest part of the show. Quite understandable for two young girls headlining their biggest concert in the most important capital of live music.
So why promoters and tour managers, whoever is responsible, can’t understand this?
The autoharp moment would make some beautiful neoclassical portrait of Johanna in her medioeval, green, velvet dress. It went unreported. As for Ghost Town sang without the nasty microphones covering their faces, it was listed at number 8 then missed by pit photographers and left to snappers.
The encore had much more dynamics. Johanna assaulted her keys as Beach House Victoria Legrand. The moment she finally mistreated her instrument and got is hair in the air was raucous. It couldn’t be photographed.
None of the best moments of this show have been recorded by a proper photographer and this was because none of this happened in the first three songs.
This is not sad only for our portfolios or magazines wanting the best images from us, it is bad for the band and for the fans who want to live the real atmosphere of a wonderful gig again and have to face the reality that the first 10 minutes left to photograph it do not represent it at all.